Whale Watching, San Diego sight-seeing, Old Town and Red-Eye to Chattanooga

Day Six - February 19th 2006

Sunday was the last day in our trip and we had not planned for much activity in San Diego for this day except seeing the Panda bears at the San Diego Zoo. And the skies were also overcast when we stepped out of the hotel after a quick breakfast. It was the first time in many days that we actually got off to an early start: 8:00 am!

But while checking in last night, we had picked up some of those local sightseeing brochures and read about some of the activities available to do in San Diego. One of them was whale watching, and Manjiri had called in for some information. They had tours of 3.5 hours, and Manjiri immediately signed us up for the 9:30 am tour which began from the San Diego harbor cruise terminal. So that meant we had to leave as soon as possible when we got ready. Driving distance from El Cajon to the harbor was about 15 miles and without making any traffic errors, it would take just that many minutes for us to get there along I-8 and CA-163. We parked the car right in front of the cruise ship terminal leaving all our luggage except our jackets and cameras. Since we had already checked out of the hotel, this car would now be left here all day until we return to the rental car company.

We barely made it to the launch of our cruise boat because of the long lines to pick up the boarding passes, but when we did, the skyline of San Diego downtown as seen from the harbor was spectacular. Somehow, the barren buildings of any city appeal to me more when seen from a distance, such as this view from the water. Same thing had happened to me when I saw the San Francisco high-rise buildings from Twin Peaks. The skyscrapers are just breathtaking. In this case, San Diego buildings are not THAT spectacular, but it was a nice sight. The cruise sheep was slowly going through the bay of San Diego towards Point Loma, which is actually a naval station, and then go past that a few miles into the Pacific Ocean so that we can see the gray whales migrating from Arctic to Mexico or the other way around. But luck was not on our side. Most of the whales had apparently made their southbound journey already and the northbound route was further away from the coastline, making it difficult for the ship like ours to pursue in limited amount of time. So we ended up jst circling the seas for a good 3 hours without seeing the whales. As a consolation, we at least got to see many a dolphin and also some California sea lions that were frolicking in the sun and trying to play with the birds and passing by boats like ours. Although it was sunny most of the time, it was cold and windy, so we had to remain bundled up on the boat. When we got back, we received free tickets to go on another one of their cruised since this was fruitless, so to speak.

After this, we had about 5 or 6 hours left to do a few things. Old Town San Diego, and the zoo. We decided to leave our car parked there and took the Old Town Trolley to get us from the cruise line parking lot to the zoo area. Fortunately or unfortunately, we had to go through many other stops before we got to see the zoo finally. Downtown bundling, and communities like gas-lamp had interesting history associated with them, but we could have use the hour for better use in the zoo. By the time we go to the zoo, we had seen Coronado Island and its scenery and then it was almost 2 pm. We had about 2.5 hours for the zoo. We doubled up inside the zoo after purchasing the general admission tickets and went straight to the Panda exhibit, which had a long line to get into, as if it was a florida themepark adventure ride. But I guess, just like us, people had come from all over the world to see how the species of Giant Panda Bears was being saved and nurtured for. We were told that this wasn’t actually a zoo exhibit, but more like a research station who made its backyard publicly seeable. We were grateful because we got to see some cute ones hanging out in the tree and eating bamboo shoots and one was even dozing off on a tree limb. After the Panda exhibit, we saw many other animals in the cages and some exotic birds in a bird sanctuary, all of which made us think about why we capture many of these animals. Their freedom must be compromised to protect their species from extinction, but does that make the zoo animal-friendly ? Who knows. We tried not to think about it as we went along the different animal exhibits. But Manjiri and I were both disgusted at times looking at how little free room and navigation area elephants had had as compared to their wild counterparts. But in the end, we left it all in the zoo and came out to catch the trolley tour, which the last bus was still supposed to come and pick us up.

After a long wait and frustration building (believe me, both our feet were tired by walking for several hours by this time), the trolley tour bus never showed up and we ended up taking a taxi back to where we had parked our car. It didn’t cost us much, but we were really mad at this tour company and would not recommend it to anyone going to San Diego. Yes, it saved us on parking and driving hassles, but they need to increase their frequency and also duration for which they operate. We will have to call them and talk to them about our difficulties.

We didn’t let it get to us because we still had a few hours to enjoy in San Diego and the place to go was Old Town San Diego. I had some experience of “el pueblo” from Albuquerque and Santa Fe and Taos from New Mexico days. Although I had not been to San Diego’s old town before, I felt like I have been there, and Manjiri also liked the rustic, old feeling. Of course, this was also commercialized quite a bit now with many small street merchants selling everything Mexican and Native American. We bought some stuff from TinSmith, a producer of all things Tin, and a few San Diego souvenirs. The dinner had to be Mexican. We had been planning for an authentic Mexican food all this time what better place than here, so close to Mexico. We had to ask locals which would be the best place to eat and the answer was The Old Town Café. The popularity was quickly apparent, as we approached the hostess to put down our name for seating: a wait of 1 and a half hour!! We didn’t have that kind of time on our hand, but luckily for us, they had open seating at the bar and indoor patio. We decided to take our chances there and found that the food was really tasty just we had heard. We had horchata (pronounce as orchaataa, the first h is silent) and a Mango Margarita for drinks. Manjiri had a veggie burrito while I enjoyed a chicken enchilada.

We were lucky that the old town was very close to San Diego airport. We reached the rental car return counter, gathered up all our belongings in 9 different small and large bags and made it to the check in counters of US Airways at the San Diego airport. In the hour that we had before actual boarding, we consolidated our pieces of luggage into 6 items, because they will only allow 2 personal items each on board and we can check in 1 bag each. We had to get creative, but in the end it worked out. The flight was full even though it was a “red-eye”, but as soon as we took to the air, I was fast asleep. When I woke up, it was the pilot’s announcement of Charlotte approaching. After landing at the Charlotte airport, we sat and wrote up some blog offline while I waited at the gate to catch the next flight to Chattanooga. On arrival home, Nilesh picked us up after I had a chance to change and freshen up and I came straight to work. Manjiri had the day off, so she went home and informed me that the cats were very happy to see her. All in all, a good trip was finally over for her. I had to wait till I got home that night to recover from all the traveling stress.

I didn’t mention this earlier, but we lucked out a lot by getting this “JAW” journey for using our frequent flyer miles, which in turn were accumulated pretty much because of our India trip in May 2005. Anyway, to get a two-one-way trip like this is sometimes next to impossible, but we must have been lucky. Being able to fly into San Francisco and fly out of San Diego made this 6 day vacation more enjoyable, because otherwise, we would have to drive down the hundreds of miles and then drive back all the miles to catch a flight. Alamo also made it easier by not charging us a one way rental fee. What was funny about the Alamo rental was that I used a coupon from MasterCard, but we actually paid for it using Discover. The coupon was found online using Google and car was booked online using Alamo’s website. It saved us quite a bit of money, you should try it next time you have to rent a car. More notes like this later….Now back to Life in Chattanooga…